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O.C. Music : Recalling Ireland's Harvest of Sorrow

March 08, 1995|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEVERLY HILLS — "The bad times."

That's how Chieftains leader Paddy Moloney first remembers hearing his mother and other adults in Ireland refer to the great potato famine that decimated the Emerald Isle 150 years ago.

To this day, half a century since Moloney was a tyke knocking about the Slieve Bloom Mountains of central Ireland, the phrase still strikes him as something used to mask a family secret.

"It was a rather frightening thing, the whole famine experience, and it's something that the Irish kept very quiet about," Moloney, 56, said. "They had a complex about it--they felt rather ashamed that it should have happened. So they always referred to it as 'the bad times.' "

Moloney hopes to remind the world just how bad those times were with the Famine Symphony he is composing. It is just one of many public commemorations of this year's 150th anniversary of the onset of the Great Famine. As with most of those events, Moloney's goal is twofold: to honor the millions who died or emigrated because of the famine, and to encourage relief efforts on behalf of famine in the world today.

In Ireland's case, disease destroyed back-to-back potato harvests of 1845 and 1846, wreaking disaster on a vast scale because of social and political conditions created during centuries of fighting with the British.

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Modern estimates put the minimum number of people who died of starvation at 1 million. At least another 1 1/2 million left the country within the next five years. Because the vast majority of those were the Irish-speaking poor, the famine forever changed the face of the country--politically, culturally and socially.

"It was our Holocaust," Moloney said during a recent interview at his hotel while he was in Southern California briefly for interviews in conjunction with the Chieftains' new "Long Black Veil" album, which has quickly become its biggest seller ever. (Story, F2.) Tonight, the Chieftains appear in a sold-out concert at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.

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The Famine Symphony, which Moloney is still writing, is perhaps the most ambitious project yet for him and band mates Matt Molloy, Kevin Conneff, Martin Fay, Derek Bell and Sean Keane. The group is scheduled to premiere the piece with the Quebec Symphony on July 12 in Quebec.

The 50-minute piece will be rooted in the traditional Irish music that has been the group's forte for more than three decades.

While Moloney casually described the hit "Long Black Veil" album as "just another project," the symphony has been on his mind for the past six years. Moloney is keenly aware of the pressure to do justice to so significant an event.

In their 1972 book "The Story of Ireland" (Viking Press), historians Maire and Conor Cruise O'Brien wrote: "The famine is the great dividing line in modern Irish history. Before it, Ireland had been a country of notably early marriages; after it, late marriages are the rule, and the most conspicuous social feature of contemporary Ireland. . . . Before the famine, Ireland was to a great extent Irish-speaking; after it, English was soon spoken almost everywhere. . . . One may also feel that there was a certain change in the character of the people. . . . After the famine, one senses a new quality, something grimmer and tougher, among the survivors and their children, the Irish of the later 19th Century."

Although the blight that wiped out Ireland's crops was simultaneously ravaging potatoes across much of Europe and North America, it hit Ireland especially hard because the nation's poor had become almost entirely dependent upon the potato for food.

Adding to the tragedy was "the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation," wrote English historian Cecil Woodham-Smith in his 1962 chronicle of the famine, "The Great Hunger" (Harper & Row).

In that respect, Moloney believes Ireland's famine was no different from so many others.

"It had nothing to do with a shortage of food. It was all politics. There was plenty of food in the rest of Ireland, but it was being transported to England. It's like any famine in the world today: We all have food mountains, butter mountains in Europe, beef mountains, wine lakes--these are all terms for stuff that's just lying there. It all has to do with politics, greedy people and warring factions and God only knows what."

Contemporary historians have downplayed the assertion that much of the suffering would have been alleviated had the exports been curtailed. Nevertheless, in Ireland, there remains "a very strong popular consciousness of the famine," said David Fitzpatrick, associate professor of modern history at Trinity College, by phone last week from Dublin.

"It is usually blamed on British malevolence or ineptitude. Very few Irish people do not have an opinion about it."

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But Moloney's motivation for writing a symphony isn't to dredge up arguments over who was to blame.

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